Bosnia, one of Europe’s poorest countries, is so ill-equipped to cope with a surging influx of refugees that aid workers here fear the tiny nation could be on the brink of a humanitarian crisis.
The impoverished Balkan country has seen a sharp rise in the number of arrivals, particularly young men hoping to cross over into the European Union via neighbouring Croatia.
But with next to no cash, decrepit infrastructure and fragile institutions that are divided along ethnic lines, Bosnia is in no position to cope with the numbers.
And aid workers say they are already at breaking point.
“It’s exhausting. We will do our best, but we have our limits,” said Red Cross official Selam Midzic, who reckons he sees around a hundred migrants arriving here every day on buses from Sarajevo.
According to Bosnia’s Minister for Security, Dragan Mektic, 5,100 illegal entries were registered in 2018. And an additional 3,300 people have been “turned back at the border” with Serbia and Montenegro.
Mektic has asked the Council of Europe Development Bank (CEB) for one million euros ($1.2 million) to handle the crisis.
But one aid worker, who asked not to be named, said the EU cash could come too late to avoid a humanitarian crisis.
Red Cross official Midzic agreed.
“The state simply cannot wait any longer to get involved” and handle the situation “in an organised way,” he said.
Allegations of police violence
For the past month, around one hundred volunteers have been taking care of the migrants in the northwestern town of Bihac, distributing food in the dilapidated university campus where many of them are squatting.
Two weeks ago, the number of meals the volunteers prepared was 200. That number has since grown to 550.
Among the migrants are families with children. But most of them are young men, stopping here before trying to cross over into Croatia.
Nawab, a 26-year old Pakistani who did not want to give his last name, said he had been on the road for two years.
“I will try to cross the border tonight. I will first go to Italy, once I’m there I will go to my uncle who is in Spain, in Barcelona.”
According to Peter Van Der Auweraert, head of the Bosnian mission of the International Organization for Migrations (IOM), around 2,500 migrants were currently in Bosnia, which meant that many managed to cross over into the EU.
Another Pakistani, 27-year-old Hamid, said he had tried three times to reach the EU, but failed.
He accuses the Croatian police — an allegation frequently made by others, including NGOs — of violence.
“They take our money, our telephones, or wreck them by submerging them in water.”
A Bosnian police officer explained that refugees who succeeded in getting across the border used the telephones to text the details of the route to their friends following them.
“The humanitarian situation is getting worse. People are exhausted when they arrive,” said IOM’s Van Der Auweraert.
“It is important for the state to set up and run the accommodation.”
A reception centre has been set up near Mostar in the south of the country.
But the migrants are reluctant to go there because it is too far off their route for the EU.
Two more reception centres are planned, near Sarajevo and between Bihac and Velika Kladusa.
Nevertheless, minister Mektic is concerned that smuggling networks will quickly spring up.
“Once these centres have been set up, they are surrounded by criminal groups after only two days,” he said.
The smugglers demanded 1,000 euros for every person they drove to Croatia, the minister said.
While the border between Bosnia and Croatia is more difficult to surveil than the one between Bosnia and Serbia, it is also more perilous, with rivers and mountainous terrain.
Ihsan Udin, a 21-year-old Afghan, drowned in the Korana, the river than runs between Bosnia and Croatia, in mid-May. He was buried in Bihac on Friday.
Since the beginning of the year, more than 80 migrants were killed on the “Balkans route” between Turkey and Slovenia, according to a tally made by the Doctors without Borders NGO.